Earlier this year, I sat in on a session about diversity at a writer’s conference.
My first instinct was to scan the room. I took in the faces. I made a mental checklist of the visible diversity in the session. The three most talked about differences. Age, sex, race. There are more of course. There are multitudes of ways we divide and segregate the body of Christ.
We disconnect. All of humanity strains against the walls we erect. We find ourselves alone and separate. Other. Or we find ourselves in and never bother to question how we got there or who we left out on the way. Sometimes, I don’t know which is worse.
We are limitless in how we distance ourselves from other’s stories.
I sat in my Asian American skin in the front row. I glanced around the room with my distinctive eyes that give away my heritage and roots but say nothing of who I am as a person. They alone can’t tell my story.
And yet I can’t shake that the way I see, the way I know has been formed from 35 years of seeing the world through them.
I am Asian and I am white. I straddle a world with one foot in and one foot out and I never feel like I belong in either. Being a woman of color has tinted my whole life with varying experiences both beautiful and brutal.
The speaker talked about connection and ways to start the conversation. How do we engage each other across race, and socioeconomic boundaries, and class, and age? How do we show the Jesus that came not to diminish those things but to provide a bridge by which we all find each other valuable? How do we reflect a Christ who created such differences?
This has consumed my writing lately. What it’s like to be a woman of color in a very homogenous Christian blogging culture. What it was like as a girl hiding the smell of Kim Chee wafting from our kitchen when neighbor friends would come over because they would think it’s gross. That I am gross. Now I see Hipsters eating it and crunchy food blogs touting recipes and it’s cool to eat fermented cabbage. But I remember the girl burning red-hot shame-filled cheeks at being Asian and different, wishing for honey-hued locks and a name like Jennifer or Melissa with the appropriate vanity plate or key chain.
I remember not being Asian enough when we moved back to Hawaii. Being Hapa-Haole. Mixed. Two halves of something that never seemed to add up to a whole.
And I look the part, much more than my brother who gets recruited by multiple ethnicities, often being mistaken for Middle Eastern, Mexican, Pacific Islander. Really he could be anything or nothing. Maybe he’s white with a tan? But I’ve got the unmistakable eyes that means I’ve been asked what I am for as long as I can remember by people who meant well but just didn’t know any better.
Just that, “So, what are you?” And it reduces to this. Not who are you? But what.
I have three kids. My firstborn is blonde with blue eyes and I’ve been mistaken for his caretaker or nanny more than I’d care to admit. My daughter looks more Asian and she’s been asked what she is. Their looks alone have already determined some of their experiences.
I’m writing the frustrations I feel when talking about the lack of diversity I see online in Christian women’s blogging conferences, philanthropic trips, and contributor sites and someone asks isn’t it enough that I’m kind of in. Don’t I represent Asian American bloggers? After all, I contribute to a few sites, I’ve been to a few conferences. It’s not like there are no women of color, she says.
And this feels like everything that is wrong to me. Because one color doesn’t represent all colors.
We are in constant danger of a single story when we don’t have diversity integrated into our communities.
Integrated doesn’t mean one token woman of color plopped in. It doesn’t mean I get a pass because I have one black friend or twenty, it doesn’t mean I get a pass because I’m not malicious or cruel or I didn’t mean to be insulting, it doesn’t mean I get a pass because I have a multi-racial family.
It means we do the hard work of hearing stories. It means we open up and allow ourselves to be unsettled. We need to be ok with being uncomfortable, with saying the wrong thing, with humbly saying I’m sorry, with asking honest questions, with receiving hard truths, with going first, or stepping out of the way so someone else can.
Honestly, these are the most tender posts I’ve ever written because I’m writing into a culture I sort of belong to. But I also sort of don’t. And I wonder at the value of writing the hard awkward parts when I open up the conference line-ups and they’re primarily one race represented. I’ve wondered if it’s worth it to open it all up and go there. I worry I will step on toes of people I love and cherish.
But then we’ve had these conversations for months offline. My real life people who get me, who strive to know me. I’ve told them I’m working on this stuff, processing it and trying to distill it down with grace. Less angst and anger and more hope. We’ve talked through some of the hard stuff and when I saw this, I knew it was time. So maybe it’s still raw and some of the upcoming posts might sting a bit. I’ll tell you, I’m scared of this.
When I look at the contributor sites and they’re all glossy haired white women of a certain age and demographic I know we need to do better. And I want to be fair, to not have the knee-jerk reaction where I scan the lineup and decide they are all the same. The same story and the same experiences and the same privilege. Because that is a reductionist way of looking at people, and God never intended for people to be reduced but to be reflective. But if we’re really honest are we upholding God’s diverse creation when we come together? Are we reflecting anything more than a small portion of Christian culture?
I don’t want to be the Asian that represents all the other ones. I don’t want to play a role, fill a type, or be a caricature.
I want to be seen and known, just like any of us. And yet, in many ways it’s what we do when we start talking about race and diversity in the church. I don’t want to be a token or an afterthought. I don’t want to be added in so the lineup is less white but really no different at all. We end up moving tokens around, filling slots and calling it good.
But there’s something so very lacking when diverse voices aren’t being cherished and heard. Aren’t given the microphone or the seat at the planning meeting or the spread in the magazine or the role in the show.
I don’t know how to write any other story than the one I live and I can’t help but wonder what my daughter will see when she measures the influencers of our generation, especially in the North American church and finds there are so few that share any part of her story, her origins and her culture.
And it’s not because they’re not out there. Maybe everyone is just a little too color-blind.